It's my gf's 23rd birthday, so here's a thing I did for her.
Hello. Don't be alarmed.
My name is Travis. Actually my name is William but we can forget that detail for now. There are few names more boring than William Johnson.
You: an esteemed and beloved studio.
Me: a young, starry-eyed hopeful with a dream.
Let's make this relationship blossom into a bounty of treasures, paired with the promise of fruitful endeavors and an unending eruption of passion and nuanced storytelling.
No, don't run! I simply find it difficult to promote myself. But I shouldn't let modesty keep me down. This is a retelling of my artist's path. Be warned, it may be long, and go through a lifetime's worth of uninspired muck, all of which culminated into where I am today. If you enjoy such indulgent displays of personal progression, I hope this satisfies.
Stage 1: Impulse
I do not know when I started to draw. Like all humans, I am both haunted and teased by flashes of feeling, noise, and smells from my early years. Not enough evidence to put together a suitable picture, for sure, but I can say that my life's affair with obsessiveness was present long before I began forming memory.
The first object of this obsessive behavior? Trains.
I drew so, SO many trains. They mostly consisted of massive blocks with tiny features, giant, imposing text, and clear signs of a dedication not yet matched by anything in my life.
These were the days of drawing for exploration and comfort, to comprehend myself and my world. I no ability to appreciate or distrust my work or my ability. What I drew was a piece of my reality, it was making my loves and wants canon and concrete.
Later I found myself completely dominated by the second of my life's major disruptions: Pokemon.
Surprising, I did not draw much Pokemon. Perhaps it's because Pokemon was already such a visual stimulus, and my gaze was filled with already-rendered images. Images from the animated show, images from the games, images from the cards... these satisfied my imagination for years. I did not need to draw Pokemon as a means of bringing them home with me and into my world, as I did with trains. Pokemon had already invaded.
Stage 2: A Subtle Force
Somewhere in elementary school, my hands became honed and my brain developed the emotion of pride. I slowly grew an awareness of my affinity for art, however unearned it may seem in retrospect. I adored every art class I found myself in, and reveled in any opportunity to display my self-understood superiority.
I was always eager to engage in projects, to take charge and boost my public ego. It should be of no surprise that during this time I would often seek ways to explore, or often escape, my growing world through art.
My art began to fixate on other-worldly and historical concepts and ideas. Essentially, I used drawing as a means of expressing escapism while my emotions took the tumultuous path to maturity. For a time I drew nothing but WWI planes. In another span my art was filled with techno-junk and machines.
This was also an era when I began to ingest influence and reference. Film and cartoons had always had a strong presence in my upbringing, yet it wasn't until I was introduced to Star Wars, newspaper comics like Foxtrot, and a very special website called Homestarrunner.com that I began to feel myself directed towards art as a means of narrative expression. This began in subtle ways, but quickly evolved to an interest in writing comics. I took a few very introductory classes and found myself enthralled with the idea of creating worlds filled with characters I designed and made nuanced.
Now this doesn't mean that my early attempts at narrative art were of any qualify. Oh no, they were horse crap. But with time, actual personalities began to form.
Stage 3: Comedy Gold
Middle school is a difficult time for us all. Few friends, new schools, awkward moments, blarg. We all went through it and pretending like I was some poor, unfortunate case is silly. I coped by writing a comic about a robot and a puff-ball... thing.
This consumed a not insignificant amount of time. I was DETERMINED to make this pair into a thing, a cultural phenomenon! Instead I mostly stole jokes from Foxtrot and Spongebob and was widely ridiculed when my school allowed me to post weekly strips on a public bulletin board. They even made an announcement for me! Good thing I put my locker number on my first post as an invitation for interesting requests and helpful feedback. The notes I received were not kind.
In fairness, these did ultimately let me exercise character expressions and gag ideas, regardless of how much influence I directly pulled from. I drew a LOT of these. Most were crap, but I am surprised at my fervor. During this time I was also determined to push myself forward in other work, and a lot of my drawing that wasn't directly connected to this comic strip were more or less an evolution from the sketches I made in elementary school. Plenty of sci-fi in Middle School.
But sadly, dark days were approaching, and the days of gleeful optimism and carefree comics were coming to a close.
Stage 4: DeviantArt and Shame
Somewhere between the end of middle school and the first few years of high school, I discovered anime. Anime is, naturally, a broad, difficult thing to talk about in general terms, but to a young man with a budding sense for hormonal impulse, anime pandered to a growing, nefarious aspect of my personality. It rocked my artist direction, and emulating this very strict and salacious style became my singular focus.
Perhaps the earliest memory I have of forcing myself down this black hole was in a high school character design class I took at a local art college. For a while I struggled to discover just what exactly my style was. And in the end, I started to fall prey to anime's influence.
Now I don't have anything wrong with anime per say... I still attribute a lot of my inspiration to series like FLCL and The Tatami Galaxy, and insights into Miyazaki's relationship with his own work and attitudes towards inherent meaning (or lack thereof) in art are incredibly valuable to me. I think Japan is an exceptional place that keeps both comics and animation alive and well.
HOWEVER. Years of studying animation and exploring my own style have taught me that Japan encourages creative homogeny. And while this is true of any art culture to varying extents, compared to the US, Japan imprints a very limited range of stylistic possibilities to its artists. A huge majority of anime feels designed-by-committee, and characters are seemingly pulled from a stock list of fetish tropes to attract as many sub-groups as possible. SO many anime seem exactly the same. High school with a twist? A bunch of girls giggling around and being cute? Some robots again? It's like everyone making today's anime grew up on anime and just wants to make what they loved as children and young adults. In fact that's probably exactly what's happening.
All of this probably sounds very bitter, and I am bitter. I wasted years of crucial art practice on copying cat girl pictures. YEARS. And divorcing myself from merely copying someone else's style took much longer than it should have. Advice to artists: you are much better off forming your style from nature, mastering the classical approach to form and then working backwards to a look that is uniquely yours. It's the Picasso method, and Picasso was Picasso.
But I digress. I drew a lot of anime in high school and my first year of college. I regret this period of my art life, but I can't change the past. There's even a fair amount I can't post here without losing some moral standing, as I drew pictures of various crushes in... less than presentable form. All of them were given the anime treatment, of course.
However, I will admit that even though this was a period of immense distraction, I did improve in various ways. I became much more involved in the community of art students at my high school, began to seriously consider art and animation as potential areas of professional focus, and began animating with semi-regularity. I even animated a short my Junior year that would be televised on a local community college's channel. Some characters in that film even make an appearance on this very website.
Even though I was deeply inspired by moe-blob nonsense, I did discover Don Hertzfeldt during this time, and he became a very strong influence on my work. He even took a look at "Corn Syrup" and gave me some very flattering feedback. I did relatively well in an introductory animation class at the art college I mentioned before, and then out of the blue I got into film school.
Stage 5: Motion
I did not go to NYU to become an animator. I went to be an editor. I quickly discovered that editing was not for me. I slithered back to animation.
Actually, rediscovering animation my freshman year was wonderful. Few tasks filled me with as much joy and satisfaction, and I was immeasurably proud of the work I accomplished.
My freshman year of college was transformational. I drew with increased regularity and with a reformed focus on developing my personal style. In retrospect, I still pulled from anime for inspiration a great deal, and my battle for stylistic autonomy continued. But at the very least, which was when I began to realize that I did not have a future working in anime, and shouldn't want to.
By the end of Freshman year, I had completed a pretty alright 45 second-ish short and had been scooped by a senior to work on his thesis. I ended up painting oil on acetate cells for about 3 months to give the animated portions of his mixed media project a hand painted look. I'm still very proud of the work I ended up doing with him, and a clip of the film can be found in my reel.
"The White Seagull" would go on to be featured in a number of small festivals and even win a few awards.
The next year was extremely formative. First semester, I took the end-all-be-all filmmaking course, perhaps the single most known course in the program, and missed having the constant, engaging challenge of designing a visual experience from the ground up. While the tumultuous nature of sets and the spontaneity of sets were a strong learning experience, and my work today is still guided by some of the lessons I learned in this class, I did not discover a natural affinity for live action like I had animation.
Luckily, this down period was put to rest when I took a class the following semester focused on putting action into practice. It was a reawakening, and will forever be the most important class I ever took in my academic career.
That semester was a blur of weekly motion study projects and story exploration. Not a moment of free time was wasted, and I keenly remember spending entire weekends glued to my Cintiq on an action project, figuring out a way to incorporate some kind of minor story into whatever open-ended instruction our professor provided. It was an ethereal period of joy, when nothing was discouraged and constructive criticism became a welcome prize.
I would later be pulled aside by my professor to be told that I was one of the best students he'd ever had, and even though I had (and still have) a very, very difficult time believing him consider the incredible talent that goes through NYU every year, I took his praise to heart. The summer after he gave me a freelance job to help with his studio's production of "My Depression", which just recently aired on HBO.
This span of time was spent studying away from NYU, and the tight-knit group of animators I had grown close with. Instead, I was in Japan with my nose buried in Japanese language textbooks and chasing a different dream. While the year was filled with valuable life experiences that I will never forget, I didn't do very much actual art. Of course life experiences are important for developing an artistic perspective, and I was there with blessings from my department, but I'll always wonder how different my current position would be had I not gone, had I stayed behind and spend one more year making films and improving my animation. I'll never know, but the thoughts regularly occupy me.
Stage 6: Focus and Release
After returning from Japan, it was time to focus my animation tendrils to complete a singular undertaking. I was done with the small projects and weekly adventures (at least for a bit). It was time to build a story with characters, and to set a film into motion.
"Memory Sync" is a still unfinished project that has been in my life for over a year. It's a little under 7 minutes long, has a fully composed score. I developed the film's idea germ while in Japan, and eventually discovered how my experiences in that country influenced the story and characters. A few points were set in stone early. It would be in the future, or alternate setting with advanced technology. There would be no dialogue. It would be about a mouth-less robot.
Taking stylistic inspiration from Blade Runner and My Life as a Teenage Robot, and with a dash of Robotboy, I created a story about a small robot getting separated from his owner, a small girl. Over the course of the first semester back, the story changed and new inspirations emerged. Soon a time jump, visualized memory sequences, and a contrast between a utopia of the past and a present dystopia wormed their way into the film, and with them the film grew in complexity and length.
By the end of the year, the film was nowhere near completion. This past summer, I resigned to spending the entirely of my post-graduate time and effort on getting it done. It's getting very close, but there's still a ways to go.
Luckily, the past year of consistent work and looming start to my career propelled my work forward like it never has before. No, I am not satisfied with where my art is, and it's entirely possible I never will be. But my artist path is a path with no real destination, just milestones, a fair amount of frustration, and a healthy dose of self-reflection.
So there you have it. Was it a thorough tale? Signs point to no, but that's the nature of art. There is no end game, no trophy to prove that you've become an artist. I'm not presumptuous enough to claim that this path has led me to some amazing end where I'm suddenly a force to be reckoned with, I'm not. I'll always see flaws in my own work, just as all artists do, but at the very least I have a past of growth to propel me forward.